Friday, July 11, 2008

Planet Earth: large scenic and scientific series from BBC

"Planet Earth", from BBC Television, is a television series (with Emmy and Peabody awards) in eleven episodes and four DVD’s, from 2006. The series is directed by Alastair Fothergill; it is written and narrated by David Attenborough. The website is this and some broadband streaming is available only in the UK.

The three episodes on the first DVD are (1) “From Pole to Pole” (2) “Mountains” and (3) “Fresh Water”. In the US each episode is slightly less than an hour, including a ten minute “Planet Diary” conclusion about the filming of the episode.

The general reaction to the visual experience of this series is to wish it were all in IMAX. But this was the first documentary series to be aired in high definition. This is certainly a welcome experience in a time when air travel is difficult and prohibitively expensive: a film like this can bring the wonders of the world to you.

The first film starts with a little bit of reiteration of “March of the Penguins.” Yes, a male penguin will sit on top of his “wife’s” egg for four months of darkness. This is in the Antarctic. Then we jump 12500 miles to the north pole to watch the polar bears (as in “An Arctic Tale”), and gradually move down to the tundra and taiga. The latter has relatively few animals because pine needles and cones generally don’t make good food. Finally we get down to the northern expense of the prairies, well into Canada, where it still gets plenty hot at midsummer, and the heat moves north every year now. I can say, from having lived six years in Minneapolis, that from mid May to early October generally the weather (and summer heat) was the same as it had been in the DC area. In the tropics, there is an interesting sequence where a male Bird of Paradise displays his plumage as a fan and subjects himself to a female’s evaluation of his “manliness.” Males can fail physically. There is also some interesting photography of a Siberian leopard.

The film “Mountains” starts out with a lot of discussion of volcanoes. Actually, one of the lowest places on earth, a depression in Ethiopia, actually results from a volcanic crack, inviting a sort of Jules Verne “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. The highest mountains around the world were built up by volcanism and plate tectonics, and wear down gradually. The movie shows many unusual sculpted plateaus and badlands around the world. It also shows some of the mountain creatures, including especially leopards. The “Diary” mentions that in 2004, filming around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was halted by Al Qaeda battles, but then goes on to show a spectacular hunt by a snow leopard, jumping down vertical cliffs into a canyon stream. The leopards look like big house cats, and demonstrate unbelievable strength and athletic ability.

The “Fresh Water” film examines several “rift valley” freshwater lakes around the world, including three in Africa and Lake Baikal in Russia, the world’s largest lake. There is a fascinating sequence showing how a crocodile drowns much larger animals on land. The Diary shows the filming of Amazon piranhas.

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